OUR MAN IN THE HOUSE
By OONAGH McQUARRIE
Of The Record Staff
AS IT APPEARS IN THE JULY 24TH PRINT VERSION OF THE DAILY RECORD
State Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn area native and tobacco farmer, has risen through the ranks of the House to become the Rules Chairman, the second most powerful Republican in the House. His career has included landmark tax reform, and now a lead role in negotiating the 2015-2016 budget. But Rep. Lewis isn’t aggressive about his position. After 13 years serving in the House, he said he’s learned how to be patient.
“You can really choose two paths here, you can learn to fight for what you believe in and get as much of it into law as you can through the process, or you can stand on the mountaintop and scream about how you want 100% of what you want and wind up getting very little,” he said. “I think there’s definitely a maturity and a patience that I’ve developed that probably appears somewhat frustrating to my constituents because they don’t understand why it takes us so long to do what they think should be simple, good politics.”
Part of that simple, good politics was Rep. Lewis’ signature legislation, the tax reform bill of 2013, although, he said, the bill is not without its imperfections.
“Tax reform is an ongoing marathon, not a sprint to a certain destination,” Rep. Lewis said. “I believe wholeheartedly that most of the citizens of our state have benefited from the tax reform bill. It was an honor and aprivilege to have been the lead sponsor on the most significant tax reform policy passed in 70 years.”
Although Rep. Lewis is proud of his work on the tax bill and the benefits he said it brings to residents of North Carolina, he said the work is not yet finished.
Historic Tax Credits
“I’ve never claimed it’s a perfect bill or a finished process and I think during the process, the medical deductions were swept away, I think that was a mistake, I’d like to see that restored,” he said. “I also think that not taking time to clarify … the historic tax credit, would (that) truly go away or were we simply not dealing with it? That’s a tangible benefit that helps revitalize communities all across this state, it’s the one tax credit that everyone can walk up and touch something that it has done.”
Rep. Lewis said he’d like to continue to see the sales tax base expand, proposing adding a sales tax to services associated with goods.
“That means if you go to the Chevrolet place and you have your car worked on, you pay sales tax on the parts but not the labor,” Rep. Lewis said. “Our logic is, the business is already set up to collect sales tax, it wouldn’t add any additional burden to them.”
Expanding the zero bracket, or the standard deduction, is also a priority for Rep. Lewis in the future.
“Currently, for a couple married filing jointly, the standard deduction is $15,000 a year before you get taxed on it, I’d like to see it expanded to $17,000 or $17,500,” he said. “That works out to about 143 extra bucks in their pocket. Now, $143 extra in the pocket of someone making $25,000 a year means a lot more than in the pocket of someone making $100,000.”
Using tax policy to help those at the lower end of the income spectrum is a big deal for Rep. Lewis, who said he firmly believes that “fair and flat rates benefit everyone” but that the biggest benefit is felt by those on the lower end of the spectrum.
“I don’t think our tax code was very family friendly,” he said. “The fact that we expanded the zero bracket substantially, I think that helps those citizens in the lower end and I’m very proud of that.”
In order to get things done in Raleigh, Rep. Lewis said, lawmakers have to work together.
“I think I still have the same passion and drive to make a positive difference in our state. The way I’ve changed is that I realize now, that the ability to make change depends largely on your understanding of how the institution works and your relationship with your fellow members,” he said. “The difference is coming from the business world where if I made a decision that I felt would better my company or change a policy for my employees that was needed, up here, you have to be very patient because change is very slow, it’s inherent to the institution.”
Some of the things inherent to the institution are differences between the House and Senate. Bills in this session that have sped through the Senate with only cursory debate come to the House and stall or die, and when the bills make it out of the House, they are often more moderate than their original draft in the Senate.
“There are many members of the House who are way to the right of those in the Senate and many who are way to the left. I believe that because we have smaller districts, and those districts, despite what the critics claim, are actually more competitive, I think the House often tries to take the more mainstream,” Rep. Lewis said. “The House is more open, we have more committee hearings we have more debate. In the Senate, there’s 34 members of their caucus and 74 members of ours. You can get 34 people in a room and agree on the big picture things a whole lot easier than you can get 74 people to do that.”
This is where Rep. Lewis’ skills as a negotiator come in handy, helping him to wrangle deals not just between members of the House and Senate, but between his own party members.
“My training to be a negotiator, one, if you deal with farmers and the farm equipment business all the time, you learn to negotiate because you know that they want to get the very most for the very least,” he said. “What this place has taught me is that you need to be patient and you need to learn to recognize when you’ve truly reached a win-win. Sometimes, the win-win is only a 40 percent win for you and a 60 for someone else, but that’s better than a zero percent because next time you might get the 60 and someone else gets the 40.”
In dealings with the Senate, in the past there have been strong disagreements, even between members of the same party. According to Rep. Lewis, those relationships are improving.
“We joke up here, and I don’t believe this but it’s an old saying, the Democrats are the opposition but the Senate’s the enemy,” he said, laughing. “I have a very good relationship with the Senate leadership mainly through tax reform, we spent a lot of time with them. Once people stop talking, then the game is over, you’ve got to be able to continue your dialogue. If you hang up the phone on your spouse it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to call them back than to just grin and bear it. So I try not to hang up the phone.”
Focus On Harnett
“My focus on Harnett County is as sharp and as dedicated and devoted as ever,” Rep Lewis said. “My responsibilities keep me from being in the county as much as I used to and that bothers me. I’m not able to make it to as many chamber of commerce meetings, read to as many school kids, I just physically can’t be present as much as I’d like to.”
Although his job as Rules Committee Chairman keeps him from coming home as often as he’d like, it does come with benefits to the county Rep. Lewis has served since 2002.
“I do think it’s good to have the ability to facilitate members being able to meet their own objectives and them recognizing that you helped them meet their objective,” he said. “When you need to ask for something for your district or for rural North Carolina in general, I think you are able to speak with a little bit louder voice.”
Rep. Lewis spoke with a loud voice before being the rules chairman, in particular standing as the lone Republican vote against a ban on Medicaid.
“Several members came to me after the vote and said they wished they voted the way I did. We do fight amongst ourselves, but every member will fight for you to have the same right to vote your conscious,” he said. “I don’t think Medicaid is perfect and I think there’s very valid reasons that it wasn’t ready to be expanded but the rolls have already swelled even though Medicaid wasn’t expanded. I think North Carolina could lead the way with a new kind of Medicaid plan, a Medicaid light plan.”
Rep. Lewis said North Carolina’s Medicaid program is “the richest in the Southeast,” and pays for several optional services that the federal government doesn’t require.
“I’ve always thought that there might be some room in the middle, that everyone on the current plan stayed, but if we were going to expand it, maybe expand on a limited scale so people would have access to basic health care,” he said. “Maybe not cover so many of the optional services. We have a lot of optional things that the feds don’t require.”
That doesn’t mean that getting rural hospitals back on track and providing local care isn’t a priority.
“Obviously we need emergency room services in Harnett County,” he said. “I want to be able to have a surgical center, I want people to be able to get their cancer treatments at home. But, it’s just as difficult or more for a small rural provider to survive as it would be for a business, everything is going to go to the bigger population centers. I will continue to do everything I can to make sure the hospitals in rural North Carolina have a chance to survive, but it’s going to continue to be challenging.”
One of the ways that Rep. Lewis hopes to help local hospitals is by leveling their playing field.
“We fight for changes that we believe will make the rural hospitals better able to survive. For instance, the Medicaid reimbursement rates are higher at urban hospitals than in rural hospitals, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “But like everything in politics, to make it one rate that means the urban hospitals will have to go down a little bit and obviously they don’t like that.”
Rep. Lewis also said that health care is becoming urbanized and voters and lawmakers have to contend with that reality.
“It’s very important to recognize that we’re blessed now with better highways, better automobiles,” he said. “Our transportation options are better now than even 20 years ago and I do see a continued urbanization of medical care.”
That improved transportation has been slow to come to Harnett County, which, according to county commissioners, gets less attention due to a new Department of Transportation funding formula that relies on a points system.
“In a certain measure, the criticism that the new system hurts rural counties is probably justified,” Rep. Lewis said. “On the other hand, no one can put forward a legitimate argument that says we shouldn’t build roads where the cars are. It is nice to build roads that we need because that helps regionally, it helps Harnett County grow which I want to do, but I can’t argue with the fact that you can’t get around Charlotte.”
Despite that, Rep. Lewis said there are projects coming to the county that will help expansion.
“There are things in the works, N.C. 210 and N.C. 55 are both expanding,” he said. “And I think the jury is still out on the U.S. 401 expansion, I think it’s a possibility.”
Ultimately, Rep. Lewis’ success wouldn’t be possible without his family.
“Without a strong and good spouse who shoulders much more of the burden, I wouldn’t be able to serve,” he said. “Kids that understand, that buy in and, originally my dad, and now my sister and brother-in-law, shouldering so much of the work on the farm because they believe in what I’m doing. They may not be up here, you might not see them in the hallway but if they weren’t out there at 5 a.m., getting things started I couldn’t serve up here. They say it takes a village, it certainly takes a family.”